Thursday, December 20, 2012

Party Nuts That Aren’t Your Guests
What’s cooking? Caramelized Spiced Pecans

Just last week, the doorbell rang and it was my neighbor, dropping off the two pounds of pecans I ordered from her this year. She’s part of some organization that sells beautiful Texas pecan halves as a fund-raiser every December. I thought maybe I’d stick them in the freezer – which is a great way to store nuts, by the way – until I could figure out what to make with them. But when I pulled out the freezer drawer, I found last year’s two pounds still waiting for me to make something out of them.

I do this sort of thing way too often. Good intentions, but apparently my attention span is that of a 6-month-old baby these days. On an almost constant basis, I have to remind myself to stay on task.

So I decided to make something with those pecans RIGHT THEN AND THERE – or at least until I remembered what I was doing before my neighbor rang the doorbell.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Foodie Faves: Best Party Dip Ever
What’s cooking? Cheesy Black-eyed Pea Dip

Today’s post is a bit of a cheat in that I couldn’t really hold myself to the blogette format, but it is a Friday Fave. I’m talking about my best-selling party dish – a beany-cheesy dip that disappears so fast I have to make a double recipe if I want to have any left over. And sometimes, even that isn’t enough. It has no fancy ingredients and lots of butter; but at any size gathering, it’s the one people crowd over. And everyone asks for the recipe.

Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for luck is a long-standing tradition throughout the South, and especially so in Texas. My grandmother, who was a great woman but not a great cook, made a few dishes really well; I remember eating black-eyed peas cooked with bacon and onion at her house on many occasions. When my husband and I first moved to New Jersey 35 years ago, I didn’t think much about that tradition – it’s hard to get excited about black-eyed peas when most people just look at you funny if you mention the dish.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Foodie Faves: Great Gift Ideas

The longer I live, the more I appreciate gifts of food as Christmas presents. After all, they don’t have to be displayed or worn anywhere; they’re consumable, so, like candles, they can be welcomed year after year; and they can be shared with other members of your household.

The Wednesday Food Section of The New York Times this week shone a bright light on preserved food and food gifts. And, as you may recall, I spent the summer preserving the bounty of the New Jersey farmers’ market. That’s what I’m giving my friends here in Texas. In fact, I have so much – what was I thinking? – that I’ve invited them over for a glass of wine next week to choose more than one of these items. (Don’t tell, but they’ll also get one of these cute serving spoons that I brought back from South Africa.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

’Tis the Season of Indulgence... or Overindulgence
Puréed Split Pea Soup

My contribution to the party.

At our neighborhood holiday party Sunday night, I was so busy chatting up old friends and getting to know people I hadn’t met before that I didn’t spend nearly enough time at the buffet. By the time I got home, the “feed me” messages were coming through loud and clear, and I’d had just enough champagne to trample whatever sensible thoughts I might have had for responding. I was too tired to cook, and the only thing I could find to eat that didn’t require cooking was peanut butter, so I had some. From the jar. About an inch of it. Let me just say here that no matter how hungry you are, an inch of peanut butter is too much. Especially on top of champagne.

So my stomach felt a bit odd the next day, and when that happens, I naturally turn to soup. Like many of you who are still working off the Thanksgiving leftovers, I had the remains of a big ham that had been waiting for me to do something creative – or at least useful – with it. (If you don’t, you should put a slab of ham on your grocery list, because I’ve got a nice recipe below.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Foodie Faves: My Sprinkles Cabinet

The holiday season has landed on my calendar with a thud. It’s not even December and already I’m knee-deep in Christmas cookies. But in this kitchen that I designed myself (at least mostly), the cookie-making and cookie-decorating are so much easier, I really look forward to the process.

Back in New Jersey, when I first got into the sprinkles mania, decorating cookies meant several trips down to the basement where I kept the box with my collection of cookie cutters and two more really large and heavy plastic bins for the sprinkles and icing. Halloween cookies – for which I have only half a dozen shapes and use little more than white and black and yellow and orange – required the same effort as Christmas cookies, for which I have nearly 20 shapes and use as many colors as I can manage.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Taste of Holiday Greens
What’s cooking? Pasta with Kale and Bacon

There’s nothing quite so disheartening as coming up with what you think is a totally new idea and discovering that half the world already knows about it. But that will not stop me from telling you about my latest Kitchen Goddess creation. It turns out that my ego can withstand this assault.

Ever since we arrived in Texas, I’ve been trying to branch out from the endless parade of dinners featuring broiled chicken, broccoli, and rice, or some variation on the broccoli/rice bit. It was a perfectly satisfactory dinner for all those years when our sons were at home and I was still working; in fact, it was more than satisfactory. But once you get the kitchen of your dreams, you really need to branch out.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Please, Not the Jingle Bells Just Yet

Whew. The long weekend of thankfulness is over, leaving me with that bittersweet gratitude that it only lasts the four days. One son left Saturday to drive back to St. Louis where he’s in his third year of medical school and had to be ready bright and early this morning for pediatric rounds. The other son left today, taking his wife and baby on the airplane back to New Jersey.

I cleaned up last night from the 25 people we invited over yesterday afternoon. I’m not sure why I thought I had to pile more entertaining on top of the family visits, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to show off our 10-month-old granddaughter.

And now the house is finally quiet. I’ve gathered the towels from the bathrooms, noting with amazement – but not for the first time – how many my sons manage to use in such a short period. I’ve put away the high chair and the stroller and the Pack ’n Play, gathered up the handful of items the new parents inadvertently left behind, and reassembled my desk and computer from its temporary occupation by my older son.

Then I made lunch of the party leftovers (dip, chips, and gazpacho) and ate it stretched out on the couch while I watched reruns of “Castle.” It felt almost like a vacation, at least until tomorrow when I have to start on a double batch of Christmas cookies for the neighborhood holiday party.

So as we gird our loins for the rest of the holiday season, I have an easy, healthy, and delicious recipe for pasta with kale to get you started. But not until tomorrow. I told my husband we’re going out to dinner. I hope you will have the good sense to do the same.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Napkin Folding and Other Obsessions

I’ve been obsessing this week, and that’s not good. I can’t even concentrate on what to serve for Thanksgiving because I can’t decide what the table should look like.

Of course, it’s my own fault. In addition to my wedding china and the good china I inherited from my grandmother, I’m sort of a dish junkie, with sets of plates I inherited from my mother and plates I just couldn’t resist from catalogues or estate sales here and there. These random sets of plates – wood, pottery, glass, porcelain – weren’t expensive, which is how I convince myself that buying them is a good idea. And while I’m not necessarily a napkin junkie, I do think I may have more than my share. Also of glasses. These are just little weaknesses I have.

So I started experimenting. Here’s my first pass. I found the garland at Party City, and – on the theory that everything looks better with some glitter – I picked up gold glitter hair spray and used the entire can on the leaves. The candles are artichoke shapes – more fun than pumpkins, and better color. And I stuck in some cool water glasses I bought in Italy this fall. I like using these napkins on a large scale on the plates.

But that was just playing, as we’ll have five for dinner, and I only have four of those ochre plates and the water glasses. Ah, well.  So I went for a simpler setting, using pottery that I have plenty of, with different candles and my standard wine glasses. It seemed nice, but in the end not fallish enough. This is another fun way to do napkins: just roll them all the way across on the diagonal, then tie them into a single knot.

In search of inspiration, I went outside, where I noticed that the possomhaw holly was covered with bright red berries and hadn’t yet lost its leaves. I cut off a couple of big branches and – after much struggle and a fair amount of cursing – managed to get them stable in a big glass bowl that I then filled with cranberries. It’s gorgeous on my dining room table, so I set it with my wedding china and alternating dark and light green napkins, with beaded napkin rings. Added an assortment of large foil leaves I had in my workroom, and I think this will do nicely.

In the middle of all this table arranging, my cousin called and said she’d love some napkin-folding ideas, so here goes.

The most basic technique is just to fold them in half and roll them, then tie them with some cool ribbon. The ribbon I’ve used here is copper, and was almost nothing at Michael’s, since all their Thanksgiving stuff is now on deep discount. I had some sweet-gum tree spurs (from a fall stroll in NJ years ago) that I spray-painted gold, and have tucked one into each knot. By the way, it’s a good idea to always have spray paint on hand, in gold and silver and copper – you can never tell when it’ll come in handy, or what you might want to paint. I once spray-painted the trim for some curtains.

Here’s a fun folding technique that produces a nice fan effect that stands up. Start by laying the napkin out flat and making two soft pleats – like a Roman shade. Here’s the first:

And here’s the second:

Then working in the direction perpendicular to those folds, pleat the entire napkin like an accordion.

 Stuff the thinner end of the accordion fold into either a glass or a napkin ring.

Here’s a fold that adds a bit of formality, and works really well with a napkin that’s got a strip of color along one edge. Start by folding the top and bottom to meet in the center.

Then fold each end toward the center.

Fold the right end over to reach about 2 inches from the left.

Do the same thing again with the new right end. I like laying this style of fold on the plate.


Now that you’re a pro at napkin folding, here’s one that resembles the Sydney Opera House. This is an elegant shape, but only works with a dinner-sized napkin, and is best with napkins that have some stiffness to them. Start by folding the napkin in fourths, like so:

With the corners of the napkin pointing toward you, fold the napkin in half along the diagonal, to form a triangle with the corners pointing away from you.

Turn the left and right ends of the triangle down, so that the folds meet in the center and the napkin shape resembles a kite.

Tuck the bottom parts of the kite underneath and, with one hand pinching the bottoms together, lift the napkin corners – which are now a the top of the kite shape – to stand up individually. Set the folded napkin on the plate.

 So here's how my kitchen looked at the end of this activity. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Foodie Faves: Thanksgiving Favorites

I know it’s not Friday. Does it count that I started this post on Friday?

I’ve been consumed with thoughts of Thanksgiving lately, as, I’m sure, have many of you. We’re all trying to decide which of our many fabulous recipes to cook. But maybe you’re tired of the same old same old. Maybe you’re just hankering for something new and delicious. Or maybe, in spite of having paid assiduous attention to this blog, you have missed a few of the posts. Maybe you were sick that day, or had to rearrange your closet, or feed the cat.

Well, good news – the Kitchen Goddess has come to the rescue! In accordance with the theme of Friday Faves, herein you will find a nice, tidy list of the Kitchen Goddess’s favorite Thanksgiving recipes, with links to the original posts where they appeared. Here goes:

First, you must remember that every good celebration can use a little alcohol. Even better if it’s champagne. So in my house, we like to kick things off with Champagne Cosmos. Lighter and a bit less alcoholic than your basic Cosmo, these are bound to make even grumpy Uncle Larry thankful.

You’re on your own with the bird, but here’s a great stuffing recipe that, because of the fruit, will help keep the bird moist: Cornbread-Sausage Stuffing with Apples and Grapes. As it happens, I hardly ever stuff the turkey, preferring to cook the stuffing separately, in which case I guess we should call it dressing. Stuffing or dressing, this one is the bomb, as my son would say.

While I’m thinking about turkey, I must add a note about my favorite cranberry sauce: Cranberry Sauce with Pinot Noir. OMG, ladies and gentlemen – this stuff will make you swoon. Just be sure to use a decent Pinot. The Kitchen Goddess’s rule is that if you don’t want to drink it, you don’t want to cook with it.

Thanksgiving is such a carbfest, and I really object on so many levels to those sweet potato recipes with the marshmallows. If you like sweet potatoes, here’s one that’s not so teeth-clenchingly sweet: Sweet Potato Ginger Soufflé. It’s also light (though not as light as, say a chocolate soufflé – remember, it’s made with sweet potatoes), and you can assemble it ahead of time, cover it with Saran Wrap, then on the big day, take it to room temp and bake.

More carbs, I know, but somehow it’s not Thanksgiving without rolls. Or maybe you’ll want to make them for the day after, when you can stuff them with leftover turkey and dressing. Here are two choices:  Cochineal Biscuits (without yeast) and Aunt Marcy’s Yeast Rolls (with yeast, duh). Both are outstanding.

At last, some greens. Green beans, that is. And the best way I’ve ever had them is here: Roasted Sesame Green Beans. In fact, I made some just a few days ago, and they were so good, I’m making a larger batch tonight.

You need a salad, and one of my favorites for this sort of meal is avocado and grapefruit sections over watercress or spinach or arugula. Dress it with my best Poppy Seed Dressing or, for less sweetness, this Honey-Lemon Dressing.

Ah, dessert. My Aunt Marcy’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie has been lauded the world over. Well, maybe not the world, but absolutely every time I have served it. Absolutely. Light and airy, it delivers the pumpkin taste without the cement-like texture of the traditional pies.

Start your engines, everyone! Oh, and don't forget the candles.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Risotto Triumphant
What’s cooking? Tomatoey Risotto with Shrimp

Whew. The election’s over, and thank goodness, because I don’t have any ironing left. While we ground our way through the state-by-state assessments, I managed to press 7 shirts, 6 pairs of pants, 2 sets of king-sized sheets, and 3 dishtowels. I’m not sure which was the more exhausting activity – the election or the ironing – but I’m glad to see the end of both.

The more exciting news is that the Kitchen Goddess has once again outdone herself, in a very creditable job of replicating the risotto with shrimp I had in Ravello last month. Unlike our politicians, risotto is very companionable – it makes friends with just about anything you throw in with it. It’s best if you don’t get too crazy with the number of additions, but I’ve made amazing dinners of butternut squash risotto, shrimp and asparagus risotto, wild mushroom risotto, lemon-herb risotto, Parmesan cheese risotto, and of course, plain old risotto with some extra butter on top. It’s a really filling dish – and gluten-free for those of you who care – so all you need to add is a salad, or a nice green veggie.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Days of Wine and Fishes -- Amalfi Coast, Part 2
What’s cooking? Fettuccine with Zucchini Sauce

Ravello, from below
My taste buds are slowly readjusting to Texas produce and flavors – which aren’t bad, mind you – but in my quiet moments, I read over my notes from the delectable dishes we had only a month ago in Italy, and I keep thinking it shouldn’t be so hard to reproduce at least some of the tastes.

One of my favorite spots on the coast is Ravello, a tiny town (population 2,500) in the hills above Amalfi. It was founded in the 5th century, as a refuge from the barbarian invasions; in more recent times, it’s been a refuge for artists (M.C. Escher and Joan Miró), composers (Richard Wagner, Edvard Grieg, Leonard Bernstein), and writers (Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, Graham Green, Truman Capote). But you must only visit Ravello if you’re in decent physical shape, because you park your car at the lowest point in the town and walk up, ...and up and up.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Days of Wine and Fishes – Amalfi Coast, Part 1

We’ve been back from Italy for two weeks now, but my taste buds are still reverberating from the experience. I’m tantalized by memories of fish plucked daily from the sea, tiny tender clams on fresh pasta, and piles of pomodorini (sweet, locally grown cherry tomatoes) with baby arugula and fresh, creamy mozzarella.

The food was merely icing on the cake, as I believe you could be happy there even if you ate nothing but ham and swiss on rye. We were in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, where the towns are either perched on mountaintops or gripping the sides of the cliffs that run into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Everpresent views of the crystal clear water – in blues that range from pale turquoise to teal to a deep sapphire – are mesmerizing, and just offshore, the Li Galli islands, where the Sirens of Homer’s time lured sailors to their death, serve as constant reminders that these hills and waters have been witness to thousands of years of human history.

As in many of the coastal towns, houses in Positano are built one on top of the other, as if scrambling to keep from sliding into the sea, and most are painted white or some pastel shade, with arched entrances and wrought iron railings enhancing the old world atmosphere. The streets are often too narrow for cars, so restaurants take every opportunity to offer al fresco dining.

The main drag for the entire coast is what I lovingly refer to as The Spaghetti Road, known for its narrow lanes and hairpin curves. Driving it is treacherous and uneven, as the Italians all seem to be in training for Formula 1 participation, yet there’s the occasional delay while two giant buses maneuver to pass each other going opposite directions. I don’t have to worry though, as my husband won’t let me drive out of fear that I’ll have an “Oh, look!” moment over the breathtaking views, and we’ll go plummeting down the cliff.

Every restaurant features the fish of the day, and in that part of the world, the fish of the day was caught this morning. Sea bass, amberjack, flounder, John Dory, rock fish. And miniature mussels, blue lobster from Li Galli, cuttlefish, squid, and those tiny clams I mentioned. We had fish every which way: poached in a light tomato and garlic broth and served with pasta, or grilled in a medley with shrimp and sardines and squid, or lightly sautéed and served in Amalfi lemon sauce with sliced potatoes.

The most remarkable aspect of the food was its simplicity. While we splurged at Le Sirenuse, a really magnificent hotel with prices to match, and the food was as exquisite and complex as you would expect (see here the photo of my husband’s “vegetable salad”), everywhere else the dishes were uncomplicated but delicious presentations of regional specialties. I was struck by how easy it might be to duplicate many of them if you had the appropriate ingredients. Here (below), for instance, is rock fish with paccheri pasta, which I had at the delightful Eden Roc Hotel. You could do this, said the Kitchen Goddess to herself.

The challenge, of course, is finding tomatoes that taste anything like the pomodorini that appear to be growing on every balcony in every town in the region. Or Amalfi lemons, whose thick skin exudes a pleasantly sweet aroma and whose flesh is sour but not as bitter as the lemons we get in the U.S. Just more examples of how much difference it makes to use truly fresh and local ingredients.

So while I’m working on my own versions of a couple of these dishes, let me digress and tell you about the wines.

Naturally, with so much fish, we drank mostly white wine, concentrating on the many labels of Fiano di Avellino, which is one of the principal white wines of Campania, the region that includes Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Here at home, my husband and I have been moving away from Chardonnay, which is too heavy and oaky for my taste, and concentrating on New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. By and large, I’d say the Fiano is slightly softer than the perky Sauvignon Blanc, with a good bouquet that makes it a bit more elegant and flavorful. The wine itself has notes of honey (though it’s not a sweet wine), nuts, and fruitiness that’s more apricot and pear versus the grapefruit flavors of the NZ Sauvignon Blanc. And while it’s hard to do a side-by-side comparison of the New Zealand versus the Italian – since we have so far not been able to find Fiano di Avellino in Texas – it’s well worth looking for and goes really well with seafood/pasta dishes. The retail prices in Italy were 12-15 euros, so I would expect a good bottle can be had for less than $20.

Here are three we particularly liked, that may be available in the States:

Fiano di Avellino from Guido Marsella
Béchar Fiano di Avellino from Cantine Antonio Caggiano
Fiano di Avellino from Fuedi di San Gregorio

In addition to the Fiano di Avellino, other whites worth trying from the region are Greco di Tufo and Falanghina.

 With my next post, I’ll let you know how successful the Kitchen Goddess was at reproducing some of the dishes.